Curriculum Approaches

The Why and How of Elementary STEAM Education (Ep. 058)

So many teachers want to incorporate more technology, and especially more STEAM concepts, into their classroom. In this episode, Andrew brings on STEAM expert Tricia Fuglestad to talk about the best ways to bring these concepts into your classroom. Their discussion covers a wide range of topics, including the benefits of technology integration and trying new things (7:00), finding the right balance between art and technology (9:15), and making the most of the short amount of time you have in your classroom (16:15). Full episode transcript below.


Resources and Links:




Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education, and I’m your host Andrew McCormick.

Over the past four or five years I’ve become a big supporter of STEAM education in my own classroom and it just in general. The reason I’m a big backer of STEAM it’s not because just because it’s new and shiny and involves technology, which we know all administrators love because it looks great. The big reason I love STEAM so much is it’s really how real learning and “the real world” works. We don’t learn by keeping content randomly separated and every 45 minutes when the bell rings we switch gears and all of a sudden learn a new disjointed topic. This is madness. Real learning is cross disciplinary. Real learning is creative. That’s what STEAM is. It’s creative. It takes STEM and adds that creative component that is oftentimes missing in a STEM curriculum and with STEM teachers and we infuse that creativity back into it. The A, the arts, is what makes STEM actually work.

Art Ed Radio is going to take a two-part look at STEAM education, both at the elementary level and the secondary level. One of the things that I find humorous and frustrating, but also true and very real, is that every teacher thinks that the new initiative will work best in someone else’s classroom. The elementary teacher claims that choice based ed will work great, but at the secondary level. The secondary teachers think that the new national core arts standards really belong and fit best at the elementary level. We are all wrong. “It” being the new educational paradigms out there, all of it, all of that stuff, can belong in our own classroom if we want it to.

I’m super excited to share with you all today a conversation that I had recently with STEAM education extraordinaire Tricia Fuglestad. She has so many great resources on her blog and LinkedIn through her twitter account that you guys are just going to get so much out of this conversation. She is such a wealth of STEAM knowledge at the elementary level in particular, and it’s really great to have her on.

As we dive into STEAM I think it’s going to force our teachers out there to rethink a little bit how our classroom looks. Maybe the art room of the future is going to be a little less traditional. Now, I don’t think anyone out there, Tricia or myself, are advocating for a full on digital switch. I think it’s all about finding balance between digital, technological and tactile, real hands-on experiences. But, Tim and I both hear from time to time teachers are feeling the pinch. They’re hearing and feeling it from administrators out there the need to infuse more STEM or STEAM into what we’re doing.

That’s why I’m super excited to be teaching the Project-Based Art room through the Art of Education. In the class you’ll see connections in the arts with STEM, PBL, arts integration, and maker spaces, and also connect with other great like-minded teachers. The Project-Based Art room is a three credit class and new sessions start up every month, which is awesome. So head on over to the and check out this class along with all the other great classes under the courses tab.

Listen, I don’t want to bore you guys anymore with any of my big rants on STEAM education and why it’s important. I want to get right into this great and very insightful interview with the one and only Tricia Fuglestad. Tricia thanks for coming in to talk today. I really appreciate it.

Tricia: Thanks for having me.

Andrew: I’ve been just a huge fan of yours for a number of years now. Really I just love all the STEAM projects that I see on your blog, your website and via your Twitter presence. Walk us through your evolution of being one of, what I would consider, one of the preeminent elementary STEAM teachers in the country. I really do mean that. You’re my go-to inspiration for STEAM education. You’re always coming up with such cool ideas. I have a question. Were you always a really big tech person or did you grow into it from a more should I say traditional art education background.

Tricia: First of all, thank you so much. I have a very humble beginning as a technology using person. I had no formal training in college. I am actually really old. I know I sound really young. I sound so young it’s like, “Does your mother know you’re doing a podcast?” I was perhaps introduced to a computer when I had to write a paper like maybe my senior year of college. That was about it for me. I did a terrible job formatting. I couldn’t figure out how even format my resume to look for a job. My dad was so embarrassed by looking at my resume that he gave it to his secretary and had her do it.

I knew nothing. That I think is why integrating technology in my room came so easily, because as things trickled into my classroom or even in the building, I would look at it and think, “You know what, I think that could make a difference for my instruction or even art production.” Like a computer that could be mirrored through … We used to have TVs that could mirror the computer. I thought, “You know what, that means I could gather images of artwork from famous artists and introduce it to my students, beyond the prints that I have in the back of the room.”

I just would learn little things at a time and it wasn’t overwhelming. It was fun and exciting, and it just kept improving my programs … The document camera, the tablet for drawing on the computer, and then different pieces of software, little by little over the years, until I learned how to edit movies, and how can we do this with kids, etc., and then here I am with one-to-one iPads and all these things. I think when teachers look at technology innovation now it’s overwhelming, because there are so many tools that could be implemented in the classroom. Learning it all at once would be outrageous. I only had to do it little by little, and that’s why it worked.

Andrew: I think that’s a really good model that you put forward. I know we here at the Art of Ed hear from teachers who say “You know I’m being forced, pushed, convinced,” whatever we want to say, “by the administrators in my district to adopt a STEAM curriculum,” or “integrate more technology.” There’s a lot of teachers that feel a little bit overwhelmed. I want to get back to your evolution. How many years do you think you’ve been teaching where every year you’ve integrated a little more, a little more, a little more?

Tricia: I’m on my 17th year of that right now.

Andrew: Okay, and you think ever since the beginning, like ever since year one it’s been just a little bit more and a little bit more?

Tricia: It’s just been whatever I’ve been excited about and how I would look at something and think, “You know what, I think can make a different for my students. I think it could expand our program. I think it could give a new way to learn an old concept. I think they’ll be able to understand something better if I use it this way. It might energize them. It might energize me.” I’m just excited about technology integration for those reasons. I’ve never had it where I was forced or told you really need to do this because it’s all been me advocating for it.

Andrew: Right. I think it’s got to be frustrating for teachers who feel like they’ve got to adopt this over night, by next year, a whole new brand way of thinking. I know that’s got to be really tricky. I know for me I kind of did it the same way. Every year it becomes a little bit more and a little bit more. I felt like at my last job, it was year two or year three, I finally made the point where I felt like had a tipping point, where I became almost like a little bit more of a technology teacher and a graphic design and computer teacher and a little bit less of an art teacher. Just my load of classes I was teaching so much more in the computer lab. Have you ever felt that or is it different because I was teaching at a middle school and you’re elementary with the younger kids? Did you ever feel like there was a tipping point or you still feel pretty well-balanced?

Tricia: I’m trying to purposefully stay balanced. I have created a philosophy. What we’re doing is we are having a hands on art making experience, and then I look for digital extensions. For example, one of the first things that we ever did this way was a landscape project that second graders did to … They were doing a spooky landscape. It has sort of a Halloween theme, and a haunted house kind of look, with the secondary colors, purple and orange and green. Then I thought, “Well, if we want to do a digital extension of this, what if we learned about ghosts that are semi-transparent and animate it over a digital picture of this landscape.” So they would be thinking about the foreground, and overlapping and then have dynamic way to demonstrate that they understand transparency, and overlapping and all that.

When I did that something just went off in my head like this transforms how I teach. Not only are we having a physical art making experience, we’re extending it. I’m teaching things to these little second graders that I have never been able to teach before, flip book animation for this ghost, and then have it move across their own art work and show transparency, and overlapping, and foreground in such a dynamic way. I was so excited that I purposefully now look for ways to continue this philosophy in all of our artwork. And if it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit, that’s okay.

Andrew: Yeah, I love that approach. Basically what you’re saying is you’re using the technology and the STEAM education as a tool to get to these bigger things. Some people do it with maybe a more traditional approach and you’ve just had a lot of success the way you do things using the STEAM approach. One of the things can kind of irk me a little bit is I think sometimes administrators they want STEM, STEAM, tech, just because it’s STEM, STEAM, tech. They don’t really think of it like what are the students really learning. It’s fantastic if every kid has an iPad, but what are they really doing with that. I’m more interested in the learning then just the hardware that the kids have.

Tricia: Definitely, yeah. Tech for tech sake is really empty.

Andrew: Oh yeah.

Tricia: So if it could extend the learning, if it could expand the curriculum, if it could teach things that you’ve never been able to teach before it’s very purposeful used, it’s so rich and the possibilities are endless.

Andrew: I want to come back to that in a second. I’m saying tech for tech sake is kind of hollow, and I think you’d agree with me. In a second here I do actually want your feedback on what you think is the biggest bang for the buck technology sake wise. I want to circle back to a question I had earlier. I think a lot of people when it comes to new initiatives, whether it’s STEAM, or its arts integration, or PBL, or maker spaces, or is the new core art standards, a lot of people will say, “Well that would be great at the younger level.” Or an elementary teacher will say, “Well that would be great at the high school level.” I want to ask you how you have found the elementary to be such a fertile ground and why you think elementary is such a fertile ground for this STEAM education that you’re doing.

Tricia: Because if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t get to do it, because I only teach elementary. I get excited about ideas. Let’s say, I really want to teach some sort of animation to my students. I try to figure out while I play. I think that’s the key for everything I’m doing, is that I play until I’ve learned a whole bunch of possibilities within the software or the app. Then I think, okay, what concepts am I able to teach through this device and these apps, and then how would I break it down easy pieces for the amount of time I have with my students and what I think they’re capable of. There’s a lot of unknowns because I’ve only been a one-to-one iPad art room for this is my second year of full one-to-one. I’ve had different configurations of iPads for the last four or five years. I don’t know what age is appropriate sometimes. We just try.

I’m very happy to find that the same things that I do to teach any lesson to my students works. I can apply those same ideas when I do something with the iPads or any kind of STEAM lesson with my students. For example, my fifth graders we put LED lights in our artwork last year. We did robots and we made them light up. So we learned about circuits, and they were very comfortable with that idea. I’m like, okay, that’s the right age. But then I got excited about these and I didn’t want it to be over, we were done. I’m like, “Oh, I want another group.” I want to see if we can do it with … It just so happened third grade was available for a new idea. So I’m like, “Can I do this in third grade?”

It turned out they hadn’t been introduced to circuits before. They only had a slight idea of what electricity was about. I was introducing the concept of a circuit to them. It was exciting but scary to them. It took twice as long but it worked. In the future it’ll only go better because now I know it can work, and I’ll have different strategies. I really wouldn’t be the kind of person who would say, “You can’t make it work.” I think there’s a way to make it work, especially if the teacher’s excited about it.

Andrew: I know our listeners who are hearing this are going to think the same kind of thought I have, which this all sounds fantastic and wonderful but there’s going to be this obstacle, and it’s this horrible four letter word in education, it’s “time.” Where do we find the time to get better versed at this stuff, to brainstorm to see what’s out there? What would you say to a teacher out there who says, “All these ideas sound fantastic but gosh I can’t find the time to do the research on this, or to play with it?” Do you have some tips and tricks on how they can do some of that research on their own and how to maximize their time to do that?

Tricia: When I make discoveries I share it, and I can help you just go right to the answers if you go to my resources. You could do it that way, so you can build confidence and start having things that work from the get-go. I like to invent my ideas and start from scratch and just play. I’m sure nothing’s really ever really invented from scratch. You know how you’re influenced by things, then you put it all together, and then you think you’re original? That’s probably me. I am just a mix up of other people’s ideas, I’ll put together. But isn’t that what creative problem solving is and flexible thinking? I get just really excited about feeling like I invented something new, though I might not have really. That excitement in my classroom is what makes me find the time to learn and put it together.

Andrew: I know, Tricia, to be fair, that was kind of a tricky question. To our listeners, a little bit behind the scene peek, we usually prepare a couple of questions for people and then I share them with you guys. That was a question that I hadn’t thought of but I just know people listening to this would be … If there is a little critic in their head saying, “Yeah, but what about time?” The other question I want to ask you that’s not on the script here actually is, because I’m envisioning this and I think you and I are pretty similar in being okay with failure and using failure as a teachable moment, but can you talk a little bit about as you’ve adopted STEAM education have you built a culture even in the elementary level of failure, like being okay with failure and learning from failure?

Tricia: Oh, definitely. I’m okay with kids using erasers. Some people … I’m not only talking about erasers. When I give my students erasers I want them to notice what’s not good and erase it and try to fix it. That’s okay. I tell them instead of shouting out, “Mine is terrible.” I say, “That’s actually a good sign if you’ve realize something’s wrong, that’s your first step towards making it better. It’s when you don’t realize it’s wrong and it really is wrong, that’s when you kind of have a problem.” I’m okay with failure.

I’m trying to model creativity to my students. Sometimes I put a project out there, an idea out there, and I say, “You know, I’ve never done this before. We’re just going to muddle through this together and hopefully it works. I’m open to your suggestions. If you think we should go this way or that way let me hear about it.”

I wrote a grant for Art Thoughts. It’s a project that’s been around for a long time, and I’ve seen other people share their results on twitter. You would get some sort of vibrating motor and give kids the tools to build a little vibrating art making machine that has legs that are made out of markers. So as it vibrates around on a piece of paper it’s making art. They have to design and then it creates art. I wrote a grant for supplies, and I ended up buying these really fancy vibrating spin brush  toothbrushes thinking, it’s an all in one package, we’ll just use that, and reuse over and over and over again, but the design of that wasn’t… It was too fancy. What I had in mind didn’t work. It was too heavy and stable and it didn’t move much.

I was like, “Oh, no. I’m totally invested in this project, I’ve got to make this work.” I asked them, I’m like, “Okay well, how” … I went on twitter and asked for suggestions. I started to think, okay, this is it . It’s just going to be a prescribed project. I’m really going to have to be more creative and think out of the box and try to figure out how to make this work, which ended up being way better for my students, because when I presented it to them I was like, “I don’t have the perfect solution. I kind of messed up. Let’s see if you guys can fix my problem and make this work.” They did and it was amazing and fun. The kids came up with awesome suggestions and ideas and work collaboratively and learned probably more because of that mistake.

Andrew: That’s such a great model for what STEAM education I think does that maybe, no offense to traditional art education because I do that as well, and I do more of that than I used to now as I’m a little more limited, that the STEAM process, the STEAM thinking, it’s kind of like a never ending cycle of problem-solving and revision and now it doesn’t work and back to the drawing board and fix it. I just think that’s really great for your students to see that from your end.

Tricia, I got ask you one big final question here because we’ve been kind talking and we could probably talk forever. This is so nice to get a chance to sit down and talk to you. One of the big issues I think with teachers who are approaching STEAM is … Again, I’m talking about that school where it’s being pushed, and forced, and we’re going this way whether you want to or not, and teachers have an initiative to do a STEAM curriculum and they have three computers, and that’s it. And not just a whole lot of tech. This is maybe a two-parter. I’ll get you out of here on a two-parter. Is it possible to do a STEAM curriculum with very limited tech resources, and what do you think would be the biggest bang for the buck for someone out there to get something that they don’t have that would have help out their STEAM curriculum?

Tricia: There’s a lot of ways you can be integrating science, technology, engineering and math with your art program without technology tools. Like I mentioned before, it can be adding LEDs to your artwork and integrating things like that in there. That’s really very cheap. You don’t have to spend a lot of money for that. There’s have the kids bring their legos and use legos to create rotational symmetry. We just did that. I got a really cool tutorial to teach that to students. The art bot thing, that’s like a dollar store surprise thrown together.

There’s all those ideas, but if you want to do what I did, I didn’t have iPads handed to me at all, I had to do it on my own,  grant writing and crowd sourcing. We did fundraising. We entered contests. We did raffles. We did so many things that took 18 months and we now are a one-to- one iPad art room. I know it’s possible, even though you don’t have the stuff handed to you. You can make it happen. I would say definitely iPads have been a huge bang. Even if you only had one that means you can have an uploading station for a digital portfolio for students. If you had six maybe you could set up  stop-motion animation stations and do some things with green screen. One is green screen also.

There’s so many things you can do where kids could enter their art. They can do stop-motion animation, where they’re demonstrating movement over a painting about movement. Who knows? We had all these different configurations for iPads. I think six is a really good starting number and then grow from there. I definitely would recommend the iPads because you can draw, you can do photography, you can do graphic design, stop-motion animation, drawing animation and then create your own digital portfolio and on from there.

Andrew: What it sounds like why those work so well for you is I think it does actually go back to your philosophy of finding a balance, how does the technology serve the bigger picture, learning objectives that I have. Sometimes I just think people hear STEAM and it’s like, “Oh my God. We got to go out and buy a 3-D printer, and I don’t know anything about 3-D printers.” There’s smaller more incremental small steps before you get to full on maker space and 3-D printing and all this stuff. I think I would echo your sentiment that iPads seem like a really good beginning resource for elementary STEAM education.

Tricia: Yes, definitely. And if you’re going to head towards 3-D printers, that software or the apps to build 3-D things can be your iPad too.

Andrew: Yeah. Hey Tricia, thanks you so much for coming in. I really appreciate it. Thanks for sharing all your awesome wisdom on STEAM education.

Tricia: This was really fun. Thank you.

Andrew: I love hearing from Tricia that it’s not just about the acquisition of tech, that you don’t have to be a big technology wonk to pull off a STEAM education. You don’t have to have hours and hours of free time or tons of prior knowledge to pull off a quality STEAM education program. Start small, work gradually. Learn along with your kids. Fail and learn right alongside of them. Demonstrate that creative engineering STEAM thought process. In the end I think if you’re adopting a more STEAMy approach to your art curriculum, you’d do well to keep Tricia’s philosophy in mind. STEAM is just an approach. It’s a tool. It’s not the end all be all. Look for ways that STEAM education can better the learning and the understanding your students glean from your creative art room and you’ll be doing great.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced and supported by the Art of Education, with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. For fans of the podcast out there you can do us a favor and give us a ranking or glowing review on iTunes as this is what totally helps us find new listeners out there. As always, new episodes of Art Ed Radio are released every Tuesday and additional content can be found under the podcast tab on Thanks for listening.


Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.